Powerful Brains, Peaceful Minds

By Calvin Hennick

At Harvard University—an institution synonymous with supercharged intellects—employees are learning to ease stress and feel more productive through mindfulness meditation.


Leave it to Harvard University to make meditation more efficient. “To listen to a three-minute body-focused guided meditation, press 2,” a soothing female voice instructs callers to the school’s guided meditation hotline. “To listen to a four-minute breath-focused guided meditation, press 3.”
Callers who choose the second option are told to imagine their breath flowing gently in and out of their bodies. “When thoughts arise,” the voice says, “notice them without judging them or following them, and then gently escort your mind back to your breath.”

The hotline is one of several ways the university supports its mindfulness meditation program, which in turn is just one of many programs designed to promote employee health and well-being—one of the pillars of the school’s sustainability plan, which was released last year. The plan calls for a reduction

Nancy Costikyan Harvard’s director of Work/Life and Jeanne Mahon director of the university’s Center for Wellness began a meditation program for some of Harvard’s administration staff. Photo: Eric Roth

in the Harvard community’s exposure to toxic chemicals (with an emphasis on the natural and built environment, indoor air quality, furnishings, and cleaning products; the development and implementation of sustainable and healthful food standards; and increased participation in, and access to, wellness programs.

In addition to mindfulness meditation, these programs include ones that promote physical activity and healthy eating, as well as programs that offer access to counseling and social support, massage and acupuncture, and rest and time off. “We’re discovering

that well-being is considered an essential part of sustainability,” says Nancy Costikyan, director of Harvard’s Office of Work/Life, citing the research of University of Washington business professor Christopher Barnes. “If you think about sleep as a biomarker for well-being or work/life balance, he’s learning that people who have poor sleep are actually more likely to be worse negotiators and make poorer ethical decisions. That’s a surprising finding that shows that how we care for ourselves plays out in a range of spheres.”

We’re discovering that well-being is considered an essential part of sustainability.

—Nancy Costikyan

Costikyan’s office began the meditation program as a joint venture with the Harvard Center for Wellness two years ago. So far, it’s only been offered to Harvard’s central administration staff, a group that numbers around 5,000 employees, including those in health services, dining services, and the school’s legal department. Facilitators come into people’s workplaces and guide them through the six-week voluntary session with their coworkers. So far, around 550 staffers have participated.

“People are incredibly enthusiastic about it,” says Costikyan. After employees complete the six-week session, some continue to come to university-organized “sits,” and others have even gathered on their own in empty conference rooms to meditate together. “We’re very pleased that we’re able to demonstrate that this has wide, varied appeal.”

Mindfulness meditation, which has its roots in Buddhism, is a practice aimed at training a person’s attention on the present moment and accepting that moment without judgment. Often, people will sit in the familiar cross-legged position and keep a straight back, paying close attention to their breathing and casually dismissing any stray thoughts that pop into their heads.

High Marks at Harvard

In surveys, employees who participated in the mindfulness course said it changed the way they work.


  • “I feel I can better tame my distractions, which in turn makes me more productive.”


  • “I have acquired more balance in the way I approach tough situations.”


  • “The benefits of this program don’t just promote a way to live a more peaceful life, but a more fulfilling one.”


  • “I learned a great deal in a short time about techniques for better relaxation and focus.”


  • “The active listening component was surprisingly huge, and I think it helped shift how I relate to people in my office.”


  • “I am more aware of what part I am playing in my own stress and relationships with coworkers.”

Proponents say the practice has a wide variety of benefits to mental and physical health, including reduced stress and chronic pain, lowered blood pressure, and improved sleep. Mindfulness meditation has been used as a treatment for conditions including depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

In the Harvard sessions, employees do sitting meditation, learn some simple yoga stretches, and even practice “mindful eating”–an exercise in which they are given eight raisins and eat each one individually, taking care to stay hyper-aware of the look, feel, smell, and taste of the tiny dried fruits.

“It’s about being in the present moment,” says Jeanne Mahon, director of the Center for Wellness. “The idea is that it’s a way to train your attention and train your brain. It’s a quality that you try to learn so you can experience your life in each moment, and not be obsessing about what’s to come two hours from now, or what happened 20 minutes ago.”

“The class,” Mahon adds, “is designed to help people develop their own practice—something they do ten minutes a day, like formal meditation—and then learn how to apply that skill in those moments where they’re really frustrated, to note that that’s what’s happening, and then respond from a less reactive place.”

“We’re finding that they’re able to translate what they’re learning to the workplace,” says Costikyan. “People are saying, ‘I’m more productive and less emotional.’ But also they cite things like being better at communicating and listening to others.”

One employee reported that she was able to better manage pain by “riding” the feeling through mindfulness, rather than resisting it, and Costikyan says she used the technique herself on a particularly cold winter day to better handle her freezing feet. “I ‘leaned into’ the feeling, and pretty soon I was aware that my feet were cold, but the rest of me wasn’t cold.”

So, will the Nobel laureates and other luminaries that make up Harvard’s faculty soon find themselves meditating with their colleagues? It’s possible.

“We don’t go banging on people’s doors,” says Costikyan. “We wait until we’re invited.”

“Of course, we’d love to engage the universe,” Mahon says. “But,” she jokes, “we’re trying to remain in the present moment.”